Monday, February 15, 2010

The Art of Defamiliarization

One of the concepts of Formalism is defamiliarization, which Victor Shklovsky argues makes objects, "unfamiliar to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged" (16). Defamiliarization causes the audience to confront the object on a different level, elevating and transforming it from something ordinary or practical into work that is considered art. Shklovsky points out that Tolstoy's Kholstomer is an example of defamiliarization because the narrator is a horse, making the work seem strange and "unfamiliar" (16).

Animal Farm is another example of defamiliarization because all of the characters are animals. This rescues the work from becoming just another political piece about the evils of Communism and the corruption of power and transforms it into artistic literature. Defamiliarization not only forces the audience to see Animal Farm as art, but allows the author and audience to distance themselves from the seriousness of the message so that the piece can be enjoyed as art and does not become just another political rant.

According to Shklovsky, defamiliarization can also be achieved through the use of unique or difficult language. He states, "According to Aristotle, poetic language must appear strange and wonderful; and, in fact, it is often actually foreign: The Sumerian used by the Assyrians, the Latin of Europe during the Middle Ages, the Arabisms of the Persians, the Old Bulgarian of Russian literature, or the elevated, almost literary language of folk songs" (19). An example of this is T.S. Eliot's use of Greek, Latin, German and other languages in The Wasteland, which forces the reader to become a more active participant in the process by having to make an extra effort to decode the strange and exotic words in order to understand the poem. One is never allowed to fall into a comfortable lull and be a passive listener/reader when dealing with T.S. Elliot.

Whether an object is rendered unfamiliar by the kind of language used, the unique portrayal of characters in the story, or how a particular event is illustrated, the goal of defamiliarization is to make the object strange and unfamiliar so that the piece is transformed from ordinary prose to extraordinary art.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984

Shklovsky, Viktor. "Art as Technique." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 15-21.